“Relations between nations have become so easy and close through modern technology and the communication it makes possible,” wrote Adolf Hitler in 1928, “that the European, often without being conscious of it, applies American conditions as a standard for his own.” At one level, this was a fitting and straightforward tribute to a major revolution that is still working itself out. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, products and tastes developed in America have increasingly influenced lifestyles in Europe, whereas in previous centuries it was generally the other way around. The crucial determinants of this volte-face are well-known. Between the Civil War and 1914, the United States went from being the world’s fourth most industrially productive power to being the most effective wealth-generating machine in human history, with a clear lead in petrochemicals and electrical goods, and in a wide range of consumer products, including sewing machines, typewriters, razors and, of course, automobiles. This takeoff into self-sustained economic dominance can partly be explained by America’s huge size, vast resources and the ingenuity of its rapidly burgeoning population. But external forces were also at work. After 1914 the old Western European states twice tore themselves and their economies apart in major wars, and Russia and Japan were also devastated by conflict. The result was America’s century, which is not yet over more than 100 years on.
Victoria de Grazia’s concern in her important, richly detailed, sometimes eccentric book is not primarily with the economics or the political or military history of American dominance of Europe but, rather, with consumer culture. Her subject is “the rise of a great imperium with the outlook of a great emporium”: how America’s products, producers and salesmen, with the full cognizance and backing of its politicians, came after 1900 to transform not just the purchasing habits and desires of Europeans but also their ideas about society and themselves.
A professor of Italian history at Columbia University, de Grazia explores these processes through a succession of “exemplary cases.” She looks at how the Rotary Club movement, which began in Chicago, was taken up and subtly modified by business enthusiasts in towns and cities across Europe. By the 1920s the familiar Golden Wheel had become a symbol of prosperous male sociability in more than 370 places in Britain, with still more offshoots scattered throughout its empire. She shows how American chain stores, notably those started in Pennsylvania by Frank Woolworth, gradually infiltrated European cities, challenging the established duopoly of department stores for the wealthy and corner shops for the nonmobile poor. She explains how the bold visuals of European poster art receded before very different American styles of advertising. She demonstrates that the fiction of an “American standard of living” had come to be widely accepted by the 1930s, and makes clear how slow European nations were in catching up with this perceived ideal. As late as 1954, a survey found that less than a quarter of French households had running hot water and that more than 90 percent had no refrigerator. Conversely, America’s industrial pre-eminence and association with abundance meant that many of its brand names came to acquire the status of generics. Twentieth-century Europeans yearned for a Singer, not just a sewing machine; and they went out and purchased a Ford, not just a car, although in 1920s Britain a color was specially devised for that market, “Imperial Grey.”
Here, as elsewhere in this book, Roland Barthes’s ironic observation about consumer societies seems entirely appropriate: namely, that–in de Grazia’s paraphrase– “trends…that are not at all natural are regarded as ‘it goes without saying,’ such that nobody recalls whence they came into being.” In reality, as she underscores, a great deal of calculation went into this (partial) Americanization of Europe.
De Grazia begins Irresistible Empire with President Woodrow Wilson’s injunction to a salesmen’s congress in Detroit in 1916. America’s “democracy of business,” he told them, had to take the lead in “the struggle for the peaceful conquest of the world.” As had been true of Britain’s “informal empire” in the nineteenth century, American economic hegemony after 1900 was powered by governments and established elites, not just by private enterprise and individual entrepreneurs. Cadres of clever young men from Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth beavered away in the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, or as commercial consular attachés overseas. A mixture of protectionist policies and flexible interpretations of antitrust legislation enormously assisted Hollywood’s takeover of the cinematic world. And then there was the Marshall Plan, which was more than a remarkable act of transatlantic generosity. Europe’s battered economies were retooled after 1945, de Grazia insists, both to insure that the continent remained a prime market for US goods and also in such a way as to instill among its people “new ways of thinking about producing affluence.” The Second World War, and American dominance, also speeded up the fall of Europe’s colonial empires. These had previously functioned as “ghost acreage” for small countries like France and Britain, giving them vicarious access to the sort of abundant territory, resources and customers that the United States took for granted within its own boundaries. But now these plundered supplements went, and Europe was reduced to political and cultural as well as economic clientage.